Tyler Green
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Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

PST by the book: Revisionism under the sun

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Perhaps the least publicized element of Pacific Standard Time is the scholarship and catalogues published in conjunction with many of the PST exhibitions. Many of them contribute mightily to our understanding of post-war art in America. This is the fifth in a series of posts in which I’ll feature excerpts from the best catalogues published as part of Pacific Standard Time. Today: “Under the Big Black Sun,” a Paul Schimmel-edited catalogue of the eponymous MOCA exhibition. The catalogue includes essays from Peter Frank, Kristine Stiles, Tom Crow, Frances Colpitt, Charles Desmarais and Rebecca Solnit.

Most of the writers are more interested in excavating under-told stories, particularly about artists investigating socio-cultural topics, than in including the big-shots. For example, the years the show examines, 1974-81, are the peak years for Richard Diebenkorn‘s “Ocean Park” explorations, including paintings made in Santa Monica and prints made usually in San Francisco. Diebenkorn was not included in the exhibition and wasn’t even mentioned in the catalogue. Too pretty, not political enough.

Ergo, this may be the PST catalogue that launches a thousand PhD dissertations. At every gently curving freeway exit ramp, the catalogue’s authors challenge our idea of how art developed in the post-Vietnam era. (Which makes it similar to this one.) The catalogue+exhibition’s spirit of scholarly-minded, dig-deep, raise-questions revisionism — this was very much a Schimmel-MOCA show rather than a Deitch-MOCA show — is reflected in Schimmel’s introductory essay. Even if you’re deeply committed to the usual story of post-Vietnam art, you’ll probably enjoy the ways in which “Under the Big Black Sun” challenges what you think you know. If you love art history more than you enjoy the scene, this is a book you should have and read often. Schimmel:

“Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974–1981″ addresses the dynamic period in American art when modernism, characterized by a master narrative of progress and succession, reached a dead end, and a multiplicity of movements, forms, and genres began to take shape simultaneously. Indeed, the very notion of art history was called into question during this pluralistic period. As critic Arthur C.Danto explained, pluralism carried with it the “implication that there was no longer any historical direction. That meant that there was no longer a vector to art history, and no longer a basis in truth for the effort to spot the historically next thing.” Thiswas partly the result of the individual artist’s own practice — including the spirit of questioning and experimentation occurring in and beyond the studio — taking precedence over affiliation with anygroup or movement. [Image: Guillermo Gomez-Pena, The Loneliness of the Immigrant, 1979/2011.]

In hindsight, pluralism can be seen as one of the most important developments to affect post war art. Moreover, as this exhibition argues vigorously,what cohered as postmodernism during the 1980s in New York effectively codified ideas and concepts evolving from art made in California between1974 and 1981. Featuring 139 artists working in awide array of mediums and styles, “Under the Big Black Sun” examines the exceptionally fertile and diverse production from all across California during this tumultuous transitional period in United States history, which was, incidentally, bracketed by two Presidents from California: Richard Nixon,who left the White House in 1974; and Ronald Reagan, who ascended to it in 1981… [Image: Chauncey Hare, Standard Oil Company of California, from “This Was Corporate America,” 1976–77.]


Art-historically speaking, the mid- to late 1970s was absent of any dominant movement, “ism,” or style; it was an “in-between” time when diversity and experimentation were the rule of the day, as some scrambled to find the next “important” trend while others took advantage of boundaries coming down to forge connections between previously distinct realms of practice, such as photography and conceptual art, or media critique and performance art. The next “ism” to emerge was postmodernism, which theorized the dissolution of master narratives and traced the cultural determinantsof a multiplicity of art forms and genres that proliferated at that time and continues to this day. California had a special role to play as artists began to question seriously the assumptions of modernism — with its obvious connections to the similarly authoritative moral, political, and social institutions that were crumbling all around — as well as the primacy of New York in determining what was art-historically valid. New York — still perceived to be the center of the commercial and creative art world, having launched Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Conceptual art, Pop art, Post-Minimalism, etc. — remained on the lookout for the next important movement, sporadically claiming performance art, Neo-Expressionism, and even Pattern and Decoration as its own and advancing each as the “next big thing.” In service to the market, artists in New York were often lumped in as part of a movement before they even had a chance to develop their own voices, which restricted their capacity for experimentation and inhibited their development. When New York did embrace California art, it was often within a narrow provincial context, in which, for example,assemblage was viewed as a secondary response to Robert Rauschenberg. [Image: John Outterbridge, Broken Dance, Ethnic Heritage Group,1978–82.]

In reality, California had seen the inception of many contemporary art movements and media,including assemblage, ceramics, photography, social documentary photography, art and technology,video, conceptual narrative, installations, environments, art in public space, Funk, Finish Fetish, Minimalism, Light and Space, New Topographics, Earth art, performance art, body art, Conceptualism, and a plethora of other developments that focused on aspects of what was a rapidly changing an dpolitically unstable time. While the art scenes in Northern and Southern California did not cohere stylistically in ways that were conducive to the market, the overall scene was marked by profound ideological sympathies. Art-making in California remained a fluid, open, and malleable endeavor; artists were associated with each other and with certain sets of ideas but were not limited by them, and friendships were as much defined by neighborhoods, associations, interests, and lifestyles. Nontraditional institutions and artist-driven galleries and collectives created a looser structure that served as an alternative to the commercial system and provided a way for artists to see each other’s work. This openness was the single most significant factor in the unprecedented inclusion of feminist, gay, Chicano, African American, and Asian American communities within the mainstream artworld — their radicalism in many ways coming to dominate, from an iconographic standpoint, the second half of the 1970s. [Image: Patrick Hogan, Untitled (R-30), 1978.]

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  1. […] on the arts beat: Tyler Green posts that “perhaps the least publicized element of Pacific Standard Time is the scholarship […]

  2. […] and Its Aftermath: Assemblage and film in L.A. and London.” It’s related to the excerpt I published from the “Under the Big Black Sun” catalogue. The [Watts] uprising in Los Angeles led artists to consider the transformative power of art, which […]

  3. […] catalogue, trusting that the highly qualified essayists featured therein would help a girl out. As Tyler Green wrote, it may be the PST publication that “launches a thousand PhD dissertations.” Here’s […]

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